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canoeing and kayaking near Tampa, Florida
Content of Articles The Herald
Outdoors Section
March 1, 1998
by Susan Cocking

Quietly taking in nature -- canoeing down the Hillsborough

A Canopy Full of LifeThonotosassa, Fla -- Think canoeing is boring? Take a short paddle on the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa and you'll think again.

In a 3-1/2 hour trip covering eight miles, guide Joe Faulk and I had the following wildlife encounters:
An anhinga, its wings sodden from fishing, toppled off a tree branch above us and splashed down next to our canoe. (It swam quickly away--no doubt out of embarrassment.)
We glided silently to within three feet of two banded water snakes lazing side by side, camouflaged on a fallen tree branch.
We passed scores of Suwannee cooters and red-belly turtles sunning themselves on logs.
A chorus of ospreys greeted us from a communal nest high atop a cypress tree.
Had we been wading, we would have been up to our hind quarters in alligators. Reptiles from five to 12 feet popped to the surface and dozes on the banks along our entire route.
A great blue heron speared and munched on a catfish 10 feet away from us.
We saw a yellow-crowned night heron, red-shouldered hawk, limpkin, and white ibis. We heard a Hallelujah chorus of barred owls, but didn't see them. We also heard the raucous cry and cinder-block-like pounding of the pileated woodpecker.

"My big focus is nature," said Faulk, who operates Canoe Escape--a rental and guide business 12 miles northeast of Tampa. "We really consider the canoe just the vehicle."

There's plenty of nature to view on the Hillsborough as it flows 54 miles from Central Florida's Green Swamp southwest into Tampa Bay. That's because nearly all the land from the swamp to I-75 is undeveloped--most of it owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the state. The segment we paddled is part of Wilderness Park--16,000 pristine acres leased by Hillsborough County from the water management district.

Bird and animal watching are easily accomplished on the Hillsborough because it flows at a leisurely half-knot pace for much of its length. Canoeists need only paddle enough to maintain steerage as they scan the banks. The only rapids are at Hillsborough State Park--off-limits to Faulk's customers because of the potential for capsizing.

Most of what you'll see is on the surface, on the banks, or in the tree. The Hillsborough is mostly tea-colored--stained by natural acids picked up as the river flows through flatwoods and swamps. The clearest section is the 5-1/2 miles Crystal Springs Park run to U.S. 301. That segment is fed by 40 million gallons bubbling up daily from the earth's crust.

Faulk, wife Jean, and son Brian have thrilled at seldom-seen wildlife antics in the six years they've run their canoe business.

Like the time husband and wife were paddling the remote "Seventeen Runs" section which fans out into tributaries through a hardwood floodplain forest.

They marveled at a majestic barred owl that swooped low across the river to perch next to its mate on a tree branch above their heads. Marveled, that is, until the owls dropped a crude joke on the unwitting passersby.

"They bent down and squawked and cackled," Joe Faulk said.

On another trip, Faulk spotted a bloated seven-foot gator floating dead. When he paddled over to investigate, an 11-footer popped up, clamped its ample jaws on the dead animal's midsection and dragged it underwater.

"It was the most awesome display of alligator power I've ever seen," Faulk said. "It was like a dog taking a tennis ball in its mouth."

Brian Faulk once saw a gator trying to stuff a wild pig it had killed under a log in the river.

Joe Faulk advises customers to paddle quietly for best wildlife viewing. He spaces groups that rent his 55 canoes at intervals on the river so they won't disturb or bash into each other. Radios, glass, Styrofoam, firearms and dogs ("we love 'em, but so do the gators!") are prohibited.

Faulk's rules make sense: you don't need artificial entertainment on the Hillsborough River. Nature's 24-hour show is captivating enough.

Canoe Trip Glides Through the Real Florida
Florida, My Florida
Tampa Canoe for an Hour or Two
Canoe Ride Catches Wildlife Up Close
Wild Times on a Tame River
Paddle Away from all Your Troubles
Florida Canoe Trips: The Hillsborough
Taking a Glide on the Wild Side of Florida
Hillsborough River Becomes a Canoe Trail
A Peaceable Kingdom Awaits Those Who Step Into a Canoe
Quietly Taking In Nature
Paddle Into Paradise

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Canoe Escape, Inc.
9335 E. Fowler Avenue
Thonotosassa, FL 33592
ph: 813-986-2067
e-mail: info@canoeescape.com